Vancouver bottle depot seen as a model in Montreal

Ken Lyotier poses with an aluminum fortune

On a bright cold Saturday morning in downtown Montreal, Ken Lyotier, founder of Vancouver’s non-profit United We Can Bottle Depot (UWC), is counting his stash, tying full plastic bags and dragging them to a storage area. The 65-year-old is an expert at the job. Binning – or collecting recyclable materials for their deposit value – was his main source of income during his years as a homeless man before he created UWC.

Lyotier is a special guest at a downtown container-gathering event organized by the newly founded social co-op Les Valoristes. The co-op sees UWC as a model of social involvement in addressing city waste management issues. Like Lyotier did in B.C. in 1991, the co-op is fighting provincial laws and powerful food and drink retailers for an expansion of the deposit-refund system in Quebec. Together they hoped to draw public attention to the social benefit a better deposit-refund system could bring to the poor.

“[In Quebec] they are where we were about 20 years ago,” he explained. “But it might be not so difficult to change.”

It all started when Lyotier was surviving on binning along downtown Vancouver streets in the early ‘90s. At the time, only a few containers were part of a refund-deposit scheme, meaning the income from binning was low to nonexistent. Lyotier realised extending it could save tons of plastic and glass from ending up in the landfill, as well as bringing him an income.

Hoping to attract public attention, one day he asked all binners to drop their containers in Victory Square. Word-of-mouth got around and binners built a huge mountain of bottles.

“Binners were lining up all around the park and up Hastings Street,” he recalled.

Soon after, the B.C. government agreed to extend the refund-deposit scheme and raised the refund amount. Inspired by the changes, Lyotier created the non-profit bottle depot in 1995, where anyone could bring containers that were part of the extended scheme in exchange for cash.

Financially independent and operated by street people, UWC is a social enterprise that creates hundreds of employment opportunities for the Eastside community. He says there is an emotional connection between binners and a unity between people on the street, hence the name.

Seventeen years later, more than 700 binners drop off about 55,000 recyclables to the bottle depot each day, and up to 120,000 on a busy summer day. A “professional” binner can make up to $20 dollars for a big collection.

Mixing environmentalism and social equity, UWC was a pioneer in creating “green jobs,” Lyotier says. Annually, it pays $2.7 million in deposits back to the community.

Despite his natural humility, Lyotier’s actions have been publicly recognized: Mayor Gregor Robertson chose him to carry the Olympic flame in 2010, and UBC rewarded his courage with an honourary degree.

“I’m a doctor of law,” he says, laughing.

In Montreal, the deposit-refund system has changed little since its creation in 1984. Even the amount of the refund has stayed the same, not even adjusting to inflation.

Montrealers are inspired by Vancouver to sort through recyclables for cach.

The former Liberal government, which lost provincial elections last September, had agreed to increase the price of refundable containers from $0.05 to $0.10 in 2013, but the Parti Québéquois has made no public statement since it came into power.

For Marica Vazquez Tagliero, founder of Les Valoristes, it’s bad news. She fears the province will give up the deposit-refund system altogether and succumb to powerful lobby pressure to exclusively use an already implemented household recycling scheme.

But Lyotier recalls it took years for the law to change in B.C., too. The debate was closed in 1997 when city council in Vancouver approved a regulation expanding the beverage container deposit-refund system in B.C. despite pressure from major provincial food retailers and drink associations.

Tagliero claims the refund system is a powerful tool not only against urban pollution, but also against poverty. Les Valoristes co-founder Tagliero believes that binning is often the only income for poor people in urban settings.

“It is time for politicians to send a clear message and take action for a more efficient refund system that would benefit the collective well-being,” she states.

Tagliero hopes one day to create a UWC-style depot in Montreal and praises the success of the organization for maintaining an informal economy while helping those in need earn an income, clean the city and improve their quality of life.

University of Victoria professor Jutta Gutberlet has studied the binning business in Canada and in Brazil. She believes urban waste issues can be solved with social and economic inclusion. According to her, UWC’s business plan could be applied in just about any urban area in the world.

Tagliero couldn’t agree more. Collecting recyclables is a global phenomena : Binners in Vancouver, catadores in Brazil, cartoneros in Argentina, cachineros in Peru. She says the need to bin is increasing throughout the world.

“We just want to acknowledge their work and make it easier by the creation of a depot as a collective business,” she says.

In less than two hours in downtown Montreal, local binners brought in about 8,000 containers not valid for refund in Quebec but refundable in B.C. She acknowledges the fight against lobbyists will be hard.

“One thing is for sure, this fight is one of David against Goliath. I just hope it will end the same too,” she says.